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Renville County, Minn., moving forward on ditch redeterminations

OLIVIA -- Last year it was calculated that 8 million feet of new drainage tile, or roughly 1,500 miles, were added in Renville County farm fields.

At that pace, it's easy to see why the benefit assessments for many ditch systems are outdated. A list of 55 systems presented to the Renville County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday contained not one in which the benefits have been redetermined since 1970. Most showed redetermination dates in the 1950s and 1960s, and others as far back as 1911 and 1917.

Renville County is overdue to begin a systematic redetermination of benefits for the systems within the county, the County Board of Commissioners agreed during discussions on Tuesday.

"We're trying to drive a Cadillac with a Briggs & Stratton engine, nothing is getting done,'' said Commissioner Paul Setzepfandt of Bird Island.

The list of 55 systems could become the priority list for getting the process underway, although not at so ambitious a clip. The commissioners discussed naming the top five on the list as the systems where the redetermination of benefits process would start.

They are also open to adding other systems as issues arise.

Larry Zupke, county drainage inspector, recommended the list due to the fact that they are "underwater,'' or show liabilities greater than the revenues they generate for their maintenance and upkeep.

A redetermination of benefits would almost certainly result in finding acres of land draining into the systems, but paying no assessments. The process also makes right the assessments on property already in the systems. The original benefits were often determined when the land was being drained for use as pasture, not cropland.

The redetermination process also triggers a state law requiring a 1-rod buffer of vegetation along open ditches. Opposition to that requirement has thwarted attempts for a redetermination of benefits in many systems.

In their discussions on Tuesday, the commissioners noted that most landowners are now willing to live with the requirement to obtain the benefits that come with redetermination.

The commissioners estimate that 90 percent of landowners will support the process. "The ones getting a free ride, they're not going to be for it. That's the 10 percent,'' said Commissioner Randy Kramer of Bird Island.

But even with landowner support, the commissioners noted that they face a major obstacle in launching a systematic process to complete all of the systems. In the entire state, there are only six lead ditch viewers -- the viewers who lead the three-person team of "disinterested residents of the state qualified to assess benefits and damages."

The commissioners raised the possibility of employing their own staff to serve as viewers, with the idea that no one has more knowledge of the county's systems than Zupke. But state law requires that viewers be a "disinterested,'' and consequently they are unsure whether the county can use staff for this role.

The county oversees 780 miles of open ditches and 3,500 miles of sub-urface drain tile as part of its own public systems. Zupke noted that the expansion of farm drainage has pushed the systems to their capacity, and more landowners are seeking projects to improve them.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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